Socialist Alternative

How to Defeat the Right in the Struggle to Defend Abortion Rights

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The leaked draft Supreme Court decision that would overturn Roe v. Wade raises urgent and critical questions for the women’s movement, the union movement, the broader left, and anyone who has a stake in reproductive rights. Is it possible to turn back the right wing and save federal protection for abortion rights? If Roe is overturned, what do the 36 million women, girls, and people who can become pregnant of childbearing age who are living in states likely to have abortion bans do to get the reproductive care they need? Can mutual aid, either in the form of fundraising for abortion travel and procedure costs or setting up underground abortion provider networks, be the solution? What tactics do we need to win abortion that is accessible for all?

Mass Movements Win Internationally

To hear Joe Biden tell it, we mainly need to vote. But anyone who was at the May 3rd protests, the day after the decision was leaked, can tell you that many young people are rightfully disgusted by the Democrats’ long, dismal record of inaction on protecting abortion rights. As we have pointed out, the Democrats have had 50 years to codify Roe, but they refuse to mobilize a broader fightback against the right wing. The current state of affairs, with abortion rights for millions set to diasappear at any moment, tells you everything you need to know about how well the “Vote Blue” strategy is working out for reproductive rights. The failed Senate vote on codifying Roe did little other than further expose the impotence of the Democrats to win anything for their base.  

This is not to say that politics are a dead end when it comes to winning gains in abortion rights. A mass movement forced the Irish government to hold a national referendum in 2018 on repealing a constitutional amendment which banned abortion. Socialist Alternative’s co-thinkers in the Socialist Party in Ireland played a significant role in building a radical, socialist wing of the movement, ROSA Socialist Feminists, which used bold direct action tactics to force the regime to act. The referendum was successful and abortion is now legal and free, with abortion available on request up to 12 weeks gestation in Ireland. 

More recently, major gains in abortion rights have been won in Latin America through mass movements. In Argentina, pro-abortion protesters filled the streets outside of the parliament building as the vote was taken to legalize abortion in 2020. In Colombia and Mexico, countries with mass feminist movements fighting for abortion rights among other demands, courts recently took historic decisions to legalize or decriminalize abortion. Earlier this year, protesters in Guatemala forced the unpopular right wing president to reverse himself and veto a brutal law which would have imprisoned women convicted of having abortions. Roe v. Wade itself was a case decided by a right wing Supreme Court that was under the pressure of a period of mass revolt, including the historic women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which was fueled by women active in feminist organizations large and small, as well as in their workplaces and unions. 

Deadly Liberal Misleadership

Socialist Alternative has been warning of the danger represented by the Dobbs case for months now. Our position is that the way to push back on the right wing offensive on women, LGTBQ people and trans youth is by organizing a mass movement of working class and young people to fight for a program of free abortion on demand paid for by a Medicare-For-All healthcare system that includes full gender-affirming care, all of which should be funded by taxing corporations and the billionaire class. A movement for reproductive justice should also raise demands like free childcare, fully paid parental leave, and fully funded public schools that would allow working class people a real choice in whether to raise a family on a stable basis. 

Such a movement, if it is going to be able to defeat the right-wing assault on Roe and the determined inaction of the Democrats, would have to be truly massive, and would need to use escalating tactics including protests, walkouts, occupations, and other forms of civil disobedience – and potentially even strikes – to create a political emergency in society that forces the ruling class to act. It would need organizations of struggle where democratic debate about the way forward could take place and coordinated actions could be planned, and it would need a leadership capable of bold initiative. In the context of this sort of a historic movement, it is possible that the extreme right wingers on the Supreme Court would be forced into a compromise – it would only take one judge to change their position – and Roe would be left at least partly intact. While upholding the Mississippi law would still represent an objective setback, if Roe were not completely overturned, this would be seen as a check on the ambitions of the reactionaries, and would undoubtedly spur more organizing and more struggle.  

Scandalously, the biggest and most well-known women’s organizations like NOW, Planned Parenthood, and Women’s March have essentially sabotaged the development of a mass movement to defend abortion rights. It’s been more than clear that the Dobbs ruling would likely be catastrophic for abortion access at least since last December’s oral arguments, but in reality since the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case months earlier. The refusal of the Supreme Court to stay the Texas abortion ban last September was a huge blow to reproductive rights that should have elicited a much more serious reaction from women’s organizations in terms of leading a fighting response. 

These organizations should have been in full organizing mode over the last year, launching major campaigns to sound the alarm that Roe v Wade was in danger. Likewise, the biggest socialist organization in a generation in Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) should have been preparing to provide a lead, as we argued. Instead, the leadership of the major women’s organizations and DSA have put no real effort into organizing a fightback. Abortion rights are rightly seen as a cornerstone of feminist progress in the U.S., and if a leadership existed that was willing to fully commit to building it, days of action with millions of people in the streets would absolutely be possible. Instead, Women’s March and Planned Parenthood have organized two poorly-publicized and depoliticized events in the last year despite the massive, looming threat to abortion rights. Nationwide protest actions with mass attendance would bring more people into the struggle and start to tilt momentum away from the right wing and toward the idea that a mass movement can win. 

Abortion Funds

Instead of movement-building tactics like organizing for mass meetings and protests, a lot of the messaging coming from DSA, reproductive rights organizations, and the broader left has been aimed at encouraging people to donate money to abortion funds. Countless articles are circulating about how we all need to dig deep and donate to abortion funds. One typical article goes so far as to say “If you’re feeling terrified and want to take action, the best thing you can do is donate to an abortion fund: an on-the-ground organization that helps arrange and pay for abortion care for patients who need it.” It’s also the main strategy that DSA chapters are putting forward across the country with “Fund-a-thons.”

It seems logical enough: we have to help each other, and we’ve all seen GoFundMe pages to cover the cost of exorbitantly expensive necessary medical treatments for cancer, injuries, and gender confirmation surgeries. But the unfortunate reality is that only 12% of GoFundMe campaigns meet their funding goal. And increasingly, abortion funds in Texas, which were the recipients of a massive outpouring of support in October when the right-wing Supreme Court allowed SB8 to be implemented in the state, are struggling to meet the skyrocketing need. This strategy on its own, especially considering the enormous burden working people are facing with skyrocketing prices, will simply never be enough. 

Given the massive geographic swath of the country in which abortion will likely be banned if Roe  is overturned, and the millions who live there, fundraising enough money to pay for abortion patients’ medical care and travel is a truly gargantuan task. The CEO of a healthcare NGO which serves low income patients estimated that it will take hundreds of millions of dollars to meet the need that would arise if Roe is overturned. As well-intentioned and generous as pro-choice folks are, there’s no way that ordinary people can donate so much. Where can that kind of money come from?

Democrat-controlled states like California are passing laws to provide funding for abortion care for out-of-state patients, but it’s unrealistic to think that there will be enough money for everyone who would need it in a post-Roe scenario. As soon as a recession hits state budgets, this money will disappear. Some corporations have decided it’s in their interest to donate to abortion funds, but charity isn’t reliable – it can be rolled back as soon as the media moves on. Other companies are chasing PR by stating publicly that they’ll pay for workers to get abortions. This is potentially positive, but of course most people needing abortions won’t be employed by one of the corporations making the offer. This puts workers in the position of having to disclose to their employers that they are seeking an abortion, which no worker should have to do. Furthermore, the bosses’ incentives to influence their workers’ family planning – which could lead to request for raises in pay, parental leave, or childcare benefits – are deeply concerning in this type of situation situation where abortion access is reliant on the employer.

It’s positive that abortion funds exist, and they will be an absolute lifeline for the individuals who are able to access those funds. It’s a testament to the progressive consciousness and solidarity of ordinary people that these funds exist. However, as a strategy for keeping abortion accessible, attempting to fundraise the travel and abortion care costs for all the women and pregnant people who will be forced to travel hundreds or thousands of miles to access care in a post-Roe scenario is simply not realistic. 

Focusing on asking people to give to abortion funds has a broader impact on their consciousness and expectations. Whatever the purpose of the leakers, the leak of the Supreme Court draft has given us a real opportunity. We have a window of time in which to organize a mass fightback to defend abortion rights and push back the anti-woman and anti-LGBTQ offensive of the right wing. However we don’t have time to waste; the decision could come any day. It will be more difficult to reverse abortion bans once they are enacted, compared with defeating the dismantling of Roe now. 

The leadership of organizations like Planned Parenthood, Women’s March, and DSA should be fighting to convince pro-choice people that it is possible to force the Supreme Court to change its position. They should be pointing toward taxing the coffers of the billionaires and corporations to pay for free abortion on demand as part of a broader Medicare for All system. The money exists to pay for our healthcare, but it won’t happen by scraping together the change of working class people. Fundraising for a “Post-Roe America” instead of doing everything that can be done to mobilize a mass movement sends the opposite message and essentially accepts defeat.

The longtime affiliation of women’s organizations such as Planned Parenthood, NOW, and Women’s March with the Democratic party is at the heart of why these organizations refuse to take any serious approach to building the movement that is objectively necessary. The Democratic Party is actually afraid of its own base. The last thing it wants is a new mass movement of young women and LGBTQ people filling the streets demanding abortion rights, Medicare-For-All, paid parental leave, and free childcare, particularly while a Democratic president sits in the White House. The Democrats prefer to use abortion as an issue to coerce votes and donations out of a voter base that is increasingly dissatisfied with the two-party system and increasingly enraged at the inaction of the Democrats. A movement to defend abortion rights will need to be independent of the Democratic Party, and will need new organizations of struggle or it will need to completely transform those that exist today.

Abortion Pills and Underground Networks

So what will people do in the 26 states likely to ban abortion if Roe is overturned when they need an abortion? Already representing the majority of all abortions in the U.S., self-managed medication abortions using the two-pill combination of mifepristone and misoprostol are likely to be a crucial tool if Roe is taken down. Medication abortion prescribed via telehealth is already illegal in 19 states, and likely to be made illegal in other states if Roe is overturned. However, the pills are available to be shipped directly to patients from international pharmacies and can be prescribed by non-U.S. doctors who would not be easily subject to prosecution in the U.S. The medication regimen has a low rate of complication, and medication abortions are considered safe even when self-managed, outside of a doctor’s care.

In the absence of abortion care provided by the official medical establishment, activists have set up their own mutual aid networks to provide abortion access, often on an illegal and underground basis. From 1969 to 1972, a network of activists operated an underground abortion service in Chicago called the Jane Collective, and either referred women to illegal abortion providers or provided abortions themselves. The Jane Collective developed as part of the women’s liberation movement, and was linked to a broader movement organization in Chicago, the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union (CWLU). The CWLU was a socialist feminist organization which had a broad strategy for feminist organizing, including direct action campaigns to fight for decent childcare and employment rights for women. Jane Collective activists took enormous risk in providing abortions – in fact several were arrested in 1972 and faced lengthy prison terms before charges were dropped when Roe v Wade was decided. 

Abortion pills make providing abortions either illegally or in a way that skirts the legal system much easier and less risky than in the 1960s and 1970s. Aid Access is a service initiated by a Dutch feminist physician, Rebecca Gomperts, that provides medication abortion consultations and pills to women and pregnant people in states where abortions aren’t accessible, including where they are illegal, as in Texas past six weeks gestation. Aid Access has shipped abortion pills to 30,000 U.S. residents in the last four years, and Dr. Gomperts recently pledged to continue providing medication abortions for U.S. patients. In Mexico, feminist networks have been providing abortion pills and coaching women through the process of taking them, outside of the medical establishment. If Roe is overturned by the Court, Aid Access and similar services are likely to be a primary way for people to access medication abortion in states that ban abortion.  

Medication abortions are an incredible innovation for abortion access. They have a low rate of complication and a high rate of success. If there are complications, patients can simply go to the hospital and say they’re experiencing a miscarriage, as there’s no way to detect the pills once they’ve been ingested. However, medication abortions won’t work for every situation. For one thing, the pills are recommended for use in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. After 12 weeks, they can be used, but the risk of complications increases. While it can be a real advantage for some people to have an abortion at home, for patients who lack privacy from an abusive partner perhaps or from unsupportive parents, having to wait for the pills to work and passing the pregnancy at home may be less than ideal or even dangerous.

If abortion is banned in half the country, abortion activism is likely to take a variety of forms, including the operation of underground abortion networks in defiance of state laws. Rebecca Gomperts from Aid Access and Veronica Cruz, a feminist activist from the Mexican organization Las Libres, have pledged to provide abortion pills to women who need them in the U.S. Feminists in the U.S. will likely begin their own illicit networks if Roe is overturned. Medication abortions provided either illegally or through an overseas service will be extremely important for those who can access them. However, nearly one in five pregnancies ends with an induced abortion, with most patients accessing care through an abortion clinic. Abortion pills, provided illegally, will not be able to replace access from abortion clinics and doctors’ offices.  

Informal, underground provision of abortion pills with be a lifeline for many people, however we can’t view this as an end to itself. We cannot organize around a vision of a future where people have to assume legal risks to access healthcare. The goal of a movement for reproductive freedom cannot be to successfully set up permanent, underground, illegal networks. It has to be to fight for legal, free, and safe abortions available to all on demand. 

The overturning of Roe, if it happens, will represent a huge defeat for women and the working class, and no amount of mutual aid will be able to make up for the loss of legal abortion rights in half the country. As we’ve argued, the completely inadequate and defeatist approach that women’s organizations and DSA have taken to fighting back reflects their connection to the Democratic Party. The Democrats have a real interest in preventing a mass movement that might challenge the interests of the party bosses and their funders in the billionaire class. We should be wary of organizations promoting mutual aid in a demobilizing fashion, in order to point away from the need for a mass movement. 

In general, mutual aid tactics will be most useful as part of a mass movement to defeat the reactionaries and their laws. The West Virginia teachers in 2018, and other striking teachers after them, provided meals for students who would otherwise have missed meals due to teacher strike days. Providing student meals helped bolster the broader movement in West Virginia, the main tactics of which were striking and occupying the state capitol building. However, mutual aid is no substitute for a program of class struggle against the capitalist class. Our tactics should point to the power of working people acting collectively to paralyze the economy, and ultimately to running the economy democratically in the interests of the masses rather than to produce grotesquely large profits for a tiny few. 

Direct Action As An Important Tactic

The open distribution and use of abortion pills to defy unjust and misogynistic laws was used by activists from the Socialist Party in Ireland (the Irish section of our international organization ISA) during the movement to repeal the abortion ban in that country. Socialist Party members, including the then member of parliament, Ruth Coppinger, organized and widely publicized bus and train journeys across Ireland with ROSA Socialist Feminist Movement, illegally and safely distributing abortion pills with assistance from doctors, in a defiant act that played an important role in inspiring the broader movement. This tactic also spread awareness of abortion pills, and usage of medication abortions actually increased following the Socialist Party’s actions. This was very significant because it brought into the open that abortions were happening on Irish soil despite the harsh ban (and 14 years imprisonment threat as per a 2014 law), and this became a huge source of pressure on the political establishment, not only to repeal the ban but to allow on request early abortion. These direct action tactics also exposed the limits of the liberal feminists in the movement which discouraged breaking laws, no matter how unjust these laws were and no matter how much suffering they caused. 

In a potential fight to win back the right to abortion in the U.S., direct action with abortion pills might be used as a powerful auxiliary tactic as it was in Ireland. But we must be clear that whereas in Ireland, the Catholic Church whose teachings underpinned anti-abortion measures were in a long-term retreat, at the moment, the right wing in the U.S. is energized and marching forward on their reactionary social agenda with relatively limited resistance. This of course can change rapidly given that the majority in society supports abortion rights, but direct action on abortion will have to be carefully considered in states that are governed by right-wing Republican regimes. They won’t hesitate to use both physically and legally repressive measures against protesters as well as mutual aid networks. In order to defeat the highly organized anti-abortion forces, a massive movement will be required that causes a level of disruption of “business as usual” that is intolerable to the ruling class. The primary tactics of such a movement will be the traditional tactics of the working class – mass protests, walkouts, and strikes. Building such a movement should be the main task of socialist feminist activists.

The women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s to win abortion rights revolutionized reproductive care for millions of people. While stigma around abortion is absolutely still a problem, there is now an expectation among wide layers of the population that women should be able to access, in a nonjudgemental and fully informed way, abortion and birth control through the healthcare system. Of course, this ideal is not the day-to-day reality, and women and trans people continue to suffer from institutional sexism, racism, homophobia, and transphobia in the medical system. Millions of people are unable to access needed medical care at all because of the barbaric for-profit healthcare system in the U.S.

A new mass movement for abortion rights would not start from the broad consciousness of the 1960s, when some form of right to abortion was not a majority position. Today’s movement starts on a much higher level in terms of the right to bodily autonomy, awareness of the impact of racism and other forms of oppression on reproductive health care, and especially anger at how a for-profit healthcare system and pharmaceutical industry have a devastating impact on working class people’s health and well being. This is why the Democrats and their allies in the main women’s organizations are so afraid of a mass movement for abortion rights. If working people and youth are victorious in pushing back the offensive of the right wing on abortion rights, they will not stop there, and this is the stuff of nightmares for the ruling class.

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